ON THE RECORD: Annie Reborn; The Fantasticks Released

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Annie Reborn; The Fantasticks Released ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (Decca Broadway 012 159 243-2)

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (Decca Broadway 012 159 243-2)

Ethel Merman is one of the most distinctive performers in the history of the Broadway musical. From 1930-1959, she created roles in thirteen shows, introducing custom-writ songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim.

Merman began recording songs in the late twenties. She made actual cast recordings of only three of her shows, though, two of them coming late in her career (at ages 47 and 50). While she made "pop" recordings of many of her hits again and again over the years, our knowledge of what she actually sounded like on stage in her prime -- performing her full complement of songs in their original dramatic context, with the original pit-band arrangements and the songwriters in the recording studio -- rests solely with one album. Fortunately, it was her greatest hit and her greatest role, Annie Get Your Gun. This 1946 cast album has now been reissued by Decca Broadway, with a vast improvement in audibility.

I have always had a few of complaints about this album, namely: (1) it is incomplete; (2) it mixes the stars with an indeterminable number of non cast performers; and (3) the sound quality -- until now -- has been sub standard.

Why do some of these reissues sound so much better (or worse) than others? The early original cast albums were recorded directly onto acetates (similar to the heavy, old, breakable 78 RPM platters). As the orchestra played and the singers sang, a machine cut the sound directly into the grooves. When technology improved to allow recording on tape, the material could be edited and altered in the engineering process. With the old acetates, though, the information in the grooves was all that remained from the recording session. Over the years, advances in technology made it possible to go deeper into the grooves of the acetates, if you will, and find "new" sounds. When Decca reissued Annie's 78s as a long-playing LP in 1955, they used state-of-the-art technology to transfer the grooved-information on the acetates to tape; from the tape they made a new master recording. When Annie was "enhanced for stereo" in the sixties, they worked from the 1955 tapes. When the album was issued on CD in the eighties, and when it was once again reissued in 1990, they diligently remastered the recordings using the best modern methods - but always working from the 1955 tapes. Thus the most crucial part of the state-of-the-art remastering -- the transfer from acetates -- was based on the state of the art in 1955.

As you might imagine, current-day digital equipment is able to "read" much clearer information from the acetates. Decca Broadway has now gone back to the crumbling originals -- instead of the second-generation tape -- for their sparkling new Annie Get Your Gun CD. Now, for once, we hear Merman in her prime, and we can really hear the voice. What we get, among other things, is perhaps the clearest diction of any theatre singer we've ever come across. Porter and Berlin used to say they liked writing for Merman because she pitched their words across the footlights with such finesse that every rhyme -- and every joke -- was golden. Here, we can hear what they meant. Each syllable, each note is clearly placed, precisely distinct, and -- one suspects - carefully chosen. "Do-in' a-what comes nat-chra-ly," she sings precisely and identically ten times in her opening number. That's how her Annie Oakley sounds, and she's consistent throughout her eight songs. She also carefully modulates her volume. In her day, you didn't have a sound man pushing buttons in the back of the theatre to cut down your body mike. Merman lands firmly on the final notes of her two ballads, then purposely fades away as if someone were twisting a dial, but this wasn't done by some engineer.

Merman's "I Got Lost in His Arms" is also noteworthy. This song has been included on each successive Annie cast album, of course, and has gotten slower and slower over the years. The culprit, probably, is the 1966 revival cast album, where Merman -- at fifty-seven, playing twenty -- slowed the tempo considerably. Subsequent Annie's appear to have taken this as their cue, but the 1946 album demonstrates that the song originally moved at a steady pace. The 1999 revival cast album presents the song in a melancholic version, with Annie so wrought up that she adds a minute and a half onto the number (suggesting that the singer is not so much lost in his arms but asleep). This is not to say that one version is wrong and the other right; it merely demonstrates what worked best dramatically in the opinion of Berlin, director Josh Logan, and producers Rodgers and Hammerstein. (The tempo marking in the score is moderato, not lethargico.) I personally think that the song works far better in this 1946 version; the melody -- with its main phrase consisting of ten insistently repeated notes -- needs that strong beat moving underneath it.

The star is matched - in diction and energy -- by Ray Middleton, as sharpshooter Frank Butler. Listen to Merman and Middleton duke it out in "Anything You Can Do," matching each other with crisp syllables. (You can also hear one of them audibly growling like a lion, after the "I can sing higher" contest.) Middleton is pretty wonderful, himself. Annie got him the starring role in the 1948 Kurt Weill-Alan Jay Lerner Love Life, which unfortunately went unrecorded due to a recording strike. That show's failure was unaccountably Middleton's final shot at Broadway stardom. He replaced Ezio Pinza in South Pacific, and returned to Broadway in 1965 in what amounted to a cameo role - with star billing - in Man of La Mancha.

Along with Middleton, Merman seems accompanied by only three other cast members (and possibly the original chorus), making this only a quasi-cast recording. On Berlin's sweetly mellow "Moonshine Lullaby," she's backed by the show's trio of Pullman porters. (One of them, Leon Bibb, developed a career as a folksinger.) Innocuous studio singers are used for Berlin's jump-tempo "Who Do You Love, I Hope?" The show's big hit "There's No Business Like Show Business" is credited in the liner notes to William O'Neal, Marty May, Middleton and Merman, who introduced it as a simple (!) quartet. What we hear, however, is a chorus arrangement with three male soloists. Merman is clearly not present, it appears that Middleton isn't either, and I doubt that they brought in O'Neal and May to recreate their sections of the songs. (On previous releases, this track was credited to "Annie Get Your Gun Chorus.") Here we have a show in which Ethel Merman sang one of the all-time Broadway song hits, and it isn't included on the original cast album. Strange.

Decca has added four tracks from a British studio recording of the score that Merman made in 1973 (at sixty-four). Rather than giving us additional tracks of Merman's original numbers -- which would make an interesting lesson in comparisons, twenty-seven years later -- they have chosen four numbers not on the original Decca album. I suppose that they reasoned this would give us a more complete selection of Berlin's full score, but who'd choose to hear Neilson Taylor (who?) singing "I'm a Bad, Bad Man" over a Merman reprise?

Even so, this disc is most welcome as an authentic record of what Merman must have sounded like on stage before she started playing middle-aged dames. Listen to her delivery of her two knockout comedy solos, impeccably written and performed. Listen to her on Berlin's two wonderfully tuneful concerted numbers, "Moonshine Lullaby" and "I Got the Sun in the Morning." (Both of these, by the way, have dazzling vocal arrangements by a long-forgotten fellow named Joe Moon.) Listen to her duets with Middleton, culminating in the grand battle of "Anything You Can Do." It all makes for an exuberant and welcome Annie.

*

THE FANTASTICKS (Decca Broadway 314 543 665-2)

Try to remember, the time was May 1960. Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Helen Hayes, Kit Cornell, and Lunt & Fontanne were all plying the boards. Rodgers & Hammerstein had a new hit, Lerner & Loewe were about to go into rehearsal with another, and Irving Berlin was trying to concoct one of his own. (Also, Richard Nixon was running for President. He lost.) Meanwhile, down in Greenwich Village, two young songwriters from Texas arrived with a low-key, whimsical mini-musical about young love budding beneath the cardboard September moon. Many many moons have passed, and guess who's still here?

Decca Broadway has marked the fortieth anniversary of the opening of The Fantasticks with a remastered CD of the original cast recording. An earlier, far less distinct CD was issued back in 1979. The sound is considerably better, but there is only so much orchestral color you're likely to get out of a piano and harp. (The album adds a second pianist, a percussionist, and an infrequent cello or bass.) The arrangements suit the theatricality of the piece, and the disc retains the magical spell of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's chamber musical of a score: "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It," "Much More," and much more. Jerry Orbach -- now a grand old character man TV star -- leads the cast in his first major role, which quickly whisked him off to Broadway .

What makes The Fantasticks the longest running musical in history? (The label tells us that it is "the longest-running show in history," which of course is inaccurate; Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has been chugging along on the West End since 1952.) The Fantasticks is not the best musical in history either, certainly. What it has is a charming score, loads of theatricality, low operating costs (helped by grandfathered union rules), and a producer who has stubbornly persevered through some exceedingly dry stretches.

As I prepared to review the new CD, I took the opportunity to travel down to Sullivan Street for another look at the show itself. I first attended The Fantasticks as a teenager, back when it was about 3,300 performances old (and had already broken Life with Father's record as the longest-running show in American history). I found it enjoyably pleasant and altogether delightful. I returned again at about 5,600 performances, but was gravely disappointed. Perhaps it was the cast, perhaps it was the era -- Nixon hadn't yet been impeached, although the end was near -- but I decided that time had passed The Fantasticks by. So I stayed away until now, as the show nears its 16,700th performance. But who's counting? And I am pleased and surprised to report that it is once again an enjoyable delight.

The weeknight house was pretty sparse, with less than a quarter of the seats filled. A full half of the audience seemed to be teenagers, not in a group but accompanied by parents and/or grandparents. I spent quite a bit of time looking around at the faces, and I found it remarkable that they were pretty much always beaming with delight. Not only the kids, the adults too. Was it the high theatricality of the piece? The rambunctiously variegated score? The playing of the action right in your face (the center section has only four rows). The at-times exceedingly low humor? ("Righto," an actor playing a bit actor says about eight times in a row. "What?" asks his boss, finally. "Righto," he replies, "you're stepping on me right toe.")

The Fantasticks brand of theatricality -- with simply-dressed actors plucking props out of an old trunk and making walls out of sticks of wood -- was commonplace in the sixties and seventies. Today's big musicals, some of which are pretty entertaining, substitute machinery for imagination. Stuff -- lots of it -- and "special" effects are now considered crucial to success. Looking at the faces around me at The Fantasticks, I realized that this audience -- not only the teenagers, but many of the adults as well -- had never experienced anything like it. And they were fascinated. Imagine: Actors singing directly to you, unmiked. Real voices, not what you'd hear over a loudspeaker system. When the actors move closer, they are louder; when they cross away you have to listen a little harder. Actors magically appearing out of that over-stuffed prop trunk. (If you look closely, you can see another actor move close to the trunk, holding a little black curtain to mask the entrances and exits.) Sitting in your seat, you can actually feel the vibrations from the harp. Imagine -- theatre that you can hear with your own ears, and see and even smell. The Fantasticks is such an old experience that it has become new.

Theatricality, style, and imagination. Imagine, it's still on display forty years later. And to think that I saw it on Sullivan Street.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com